Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write the Stages of Grief

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I promise this post won't be a downer. What it will be (hopefully) is really useful advice on how to portray the stages grief—and in the process, maybe encourage you to continue creating even during your own personal sorrow.

How to Write the Stages of Grief

 

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey,” said Kenji Miyazawa.

Well, my friends: it's time to break beautifully.

Breaking Beautifully

“When artists break, they try to break beautifully. Sit, smile, and enjoy the pieces of a shattered soul.” – quote from Tumblr

Most of us have read stories portraying grief so spectacularly that we felt it as we read, weeping alongside fictitious graves.  Of course, most of us have also read stories with grief that utterly failed to move us, which (I think we can all agree) is something we'd prefer not to write.

The power of story largely resides in its power to evoke emotions. Our favorite works all tend to follow that path. We read about a heroine who succeeds against impossible odds, and we are bolstered by her courage. We read about the ridiculous antics of a teenage boy who's too smart for his own good, and we share both his embarrassments and his triumphs.

Empathy is the ultimate form of “show, don't tell.”

But in order to portray the stages grief effectively, we have to observe it. Grief is weird. It lingers. It colors everything and its symptoms change over time. Most importantly of all, grief leads to a particular kind of storytelling: finding the “why.”

To Write the Stages of Grief, Find the Why

“He who has a why can bear any how.”

– Dr. Viktor Frank, a psychologist and holocaust survivor

At our hearts, we are all storytellers. It's part of the human condition to explain the world to ourselves in a way we'll accept. We rationalize. We imagine scenarios to help ourselves understand.

If your character has experienced past grief, then one of two things happens over time:

  1. They find a “why” of some kind and make peace with it (even if that “why” is “bad stuff happens and I accept that”).
  2. Or they have no “why,” and cannot shed the weight of the grief they carry.

That “why” can be anything. Religious, scientific, poetic—we are terrific storytellers, down to our core. Here's a royal, real-life example:

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

– Queen Elizabeth II

There's reasoning in there, a why. 

The story your character tells herself gives your character direction. Does she blame the deceased for his death? Does she blame someone else, or hold to a faith in cruel fate that could strike again at any time?

The story she tells herself can grow hope or prevent it from blooming. It determines the choices she makes in the wake of her grief.

Homework Assignment: what story is your character telling himself? 

BONUS: By the way, this can give birth to a really great plot-twist. If a decade after the fact, evidence comes to light that blows the survivor's rationalization to bits, then that survivor has a whole new set of motivations to carry your plot along. Boom: story.

How to Write the Stages of Grief

Along with that story, there will be symptoms of grief. These symptoms vary over the various stages of grief, and you should be aware of them as you describe your character's grief.

Immediate Grief

  • Physical sensations (throat thickening, lack of appetite or increased appetite, nausea, a weight in the chest, trembling hands, swollen eyes, stuffed nose)
  • Thought patterns (denial, what if, if only, I didn't get to say goodbye, I wish I hadn't/had said That Thing, why-why-why-why-why)
  • Stress symptoms (inability to sleep, lack of desire to take part in once-loved activities)
  • Social symptoms (the insistence everything is fine, or the inability to hide grief in public; withdrawal from activities; irritability; over-booking activities to keep busy)

During the initial stages of grief, some or all of these might be present. Your character will not necessarily verbalize them; they could be happening “off-screen.” However, they will be happening, and that should make a difference how your character behaves – and how your readers empathize.

Homework Assignment: how does your character handle immediate grief? Socially? Physically? 

Long-Term Grief

Long-term grief is very different from immediate grief. Even this short list is a little baffling:

  • Denial. Boy, can this take a lot of forms. Denial of the cause of death, of culpability, of grief itself – which leads to stress physically and emotionally, not to mention living in such a way as to prove that denial true.
  • Forgetting the person is dead. I know that sounds bizarre, but it's true, and it can happen years after the fact. Your character will find themselves reaching for the phone to call the person who died – only to remember they can't.
    • Corollary: Gut-punch sorrow upon remembering that loss. It feels a little like losing the person all over again.
  • Forgetting the person, period. This isn't heartless; nature abhors avacuum, and life tends to fill in the gaps that death digs. There will often come a time when your protagonist realizes she's living as if that person never existed – and it will be a shock.
    • Corollary: Resulting gut-punch of guilt, as if remembering were a sacred duty that must not be shirked. This isn't as weird as it might seem. There's a reason most ancient cultures cherished numerous festivals and sacrifices to and for the dead. Remembering matters.
  • Living for the person. His mom was gonna be a dancer? And hey, looky there: twenty years later, he owns a dance studio, and he may not have even realized he's carrying on her dream.
  • Living at the person. This is a bizarre one, but startlingly common, and here's how it works:
    • The deceased made a statement or held a belief that the survivor feels is absolutely untrue.
    • Death prevented any kind of satisfactory conclusion to their disagreement.
    • The survivor then attempts to live in such a way that it proves that naysayer wrong. (“Oh, I can't be a great archeologist as a woman, huh? Well, now I'm the best in my field!”)
  • Rationalization. Remember that story we tell ourselves? Over the long term, that story usually gets set in stone. If you know what your character's story is, you will know WHY they do a lot of the things they do. It's a powerful writing tool.
  • Irrational fear of whatever it was that killed that person. (e.g., run over by a garbage truck, and therefore it is Horse And Buggy Time Forever).
  • Embracing whatever it was that killed that person. (e.g., run over by a garbage truck, and therefore the survivor now drives a truck to conquer that fear.)
  • Continued Physical Symptoms of Stress. High blood pressure. Ulcers. Poor sleep. Refusal to let anyone too close. If the bereavement was not dealt with and the “why” does not suffice, your character can go through a whole host of horrible symptoms.

Homework Assignment: How does your character handle grief in the long term? Do they embrace the cause of death, or run away from it? Has it shaped career choices?

Conclusion: Show Grief, Don't Tell It

If you want your character's grief to be powerful, you must learn to show it, not tell it.

You could say, “She cried,” or you could show that her nose is stuffed, that her eyes are simultaneously dry and leaking, and that her voice is hoarse.

You could say, “He had crazy thoughts of joining her,” or you could show by having him ask himself, “What if I'd been in the car with her? What if I had begged her not to drive while drinking? If only I'd taken her keys!”

When Grieving, Write On

Permit me to get personal before practice time.

The years of 2011 to 2012 were rough. One of my best friends died, followed by my grandmother, then the college professor who was basically a surrogate father, and finally, my own mother.

The causes varied wildly (aneurysm; age; hit-and-run; drowning).  The timing was insane (February 2011; June 2011; December 2011; June 2012). It seemed I'd barely recovered from one loss when another would cut the corner to hit me head-on. To say it took a lot out of me is analogous to saying there are a lot of cats on the internet.

The thing is, I had a debut book to finish. The Sundered was due to go public June, 2012. I couldn't afford to take time off creatively. I had to write through it, and I did that by focusing on what I experienced and pouring it into the page.

I wrote like a madwoman. Was everything I wrote good? Heck, no. No one will ever see most of what I wrote during that period (and believe me, you would thank me if you knew).

But am I glad I kept writing? Yes. A thousand times yes.

If you take nothing else from this article, take this: if you continue to create while you are grieving, you will survive it better. 

It's not a “why.” It doesn't make the loss less bad; but creation, like growth, only happens when we are living.

Keep writing. Keep creating. If you must break, break beautifully – and then your characters can break beautifully, too.

Has your character experienced grief? Have you? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

It's time to practice writing your character through grief. Take fifteen minutes and dive into the story they're telling themselves about this loss (the why), then post it in the comments section. If you share a practice, please comment on the stories of others.

Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.

Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.

When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.

P.S. Red is still her favorite color.

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59 Comments

  1. NerdOfAllTrades

    She closed the door after she offered one last expression of gratitude, and he returned one last sentiment of condolence.
    She didn’t know what she had expected to happen next. Perhaps she thought she would slump down against the door, and sob helplessly, but instead, she found herself walking automatically back to the kitchen table. After all, she had been interrupted halfway through a meal, and they’d have wanted her to finish it. Starving children in Africa and all that.
    She took a bite of the leftover chicken breast, but didn’t taste it. Leftover chicken doesn’t usually have much of a taste, but today she probably could have chewed a fresh jalapeño without tasting it. She swallowed mechanically and picked up the next bite, her mind refusing to grasp anything consciously, until it seized upon a word.
    “Tragedy.” That was what the officer had said – it was a tragedy, her parents being killed in a hostage taking gone bad. Years of theatre training tumbled in her head as she thought about that one word.
    In a tragedy, the protagonist is tripped up by a tragic flaw. They have some character defect that inevitably leads to their downfall. Her parents aren’t tragic figures, they are – were – heroes. Philanthropists. They never had an unkind word to say to anyone, and had gone to the bank today to endow a scholarship.
    In fact, the only flaw that her parents could be said to have was her. She had applied to several colleges for theatre studies and dance, and her father had chided her softly about how she would change the world. She had heard the unspoken implication that she could be doing more, and had resented the guilt trip that she felt he was trying to place on her. Why shouldn’t she do what made her happy?
    Now, as she shoved another dollop of reheated mashed potatoes in her mouth, she felt the guilt anew. If this was a tragedy, she was the one with the tragic flaw. All of her parents’ kindness and money, and she was going to spend her days prancing gracefully around a stage, instead of doing something meaningful.
    Her eyes lit upon the business card upon the table; she had tossed it there carelessly after the officer had handed it to her, but now she studied it: the logo and name bringing back the image of the officer who had been given the unenviable task of bringing her the news, of his uniform, the haunted look behind his eyes of some tragedy of his own. Her parents were right. She could make a difference, and she knew how. She knew what she wanted to become.
    The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that a comedy celebrates life, while tragedy highlights its futility. Her parents’ lives would not end as a tragedy, and certainly not through her own tragic flaws: her self-centeredness, her lack of ambition.
    Instead, she would take what her parents had given her and become a different sort of hero: one who could prevent evil from claiming innocent lives, like those of her parents.

    Reply
    • Hazel Butler

      I really like the little detail about her not tasting anything, and that she wouldn’t taste anything that day, I found the very effective. It’s also a nicely different take, having someone sit down and eat instead of throwing up or refusing food for days after the fact. Really well done, love it 🙂

      Reply
      • NerdOfAllTrades

        Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for reading!

        Reply
    • ruthannereid

      What a powerful piece! You leave me wanting to know more about what happened after this.

      Reply
  2. Cristi

    Once the diagnosis of cancer was made, he quit calling home.
    I didn’t have any communication with him after May 25, 2011. That was it. No
    more talks, no more reaching out, we were receiving texts once in a while.

    It hurt. It hurt, more than anything else, to be shut out. I
    tried to tell myself; he was trying to protect me. But was he? I’m not sure. Four
    years later, as I write this, I wonder.
    When he stopped talking to us, my husband said something
    that has haunted me since. Roger said “Get on a plane before it’s too late.”
    I didn’t get on a plane. And, I regret it so much. I asked Christopher, “Could I come to take care of him?” He said “no.”
    Maybe, I shouldn’t have asked him. Maybe, I should have went
    without asking. These questions circulated my mind for years. They still do
    sometimes. There is no answer.
    In my mind by not being there at his bedside, and letting
    him die alone. I was a bad mother. Knowing that a good mother would have been
    at his side, I knew I was not a good mother. I was not there.
    After Christopher’s death, these thoughts were torturous.
    “How could a good mother not want to be there when their
    child is sick?” A mother is the first one to the aid of a sick child. A mother holds their hand, comforts them, and protects them. Knowing that Christopher died, and I was not present made me a bad mother. The good mother code had been broken.
    “How was I going to face my husband, my younger son, and
    myself knowing he died alone?”
    As a mother, I would have been watching over him. I know I
    would have noticed when he stopped breathing. As it unfolded, he stopped
    breathing, and was dead for a period of time. Before Britney came back into the
    room to find him dead in the hospital bed. Throughout this time, Bob and Jane,
    his friends, were watching over him while Britney was gone. They were in the
    room when he died. They never even noticed he was not breathing. It is inconceivable that they could be in a room with a dead body, and not know it.
    “Honestly, who does that?’
    After his death, I chose to bury Christopher in South Dakota.
    His friends didn’t take this news well. I tried to explain away their behavior
    as being a part of their grief. Yet, the pain their behavior caused stays with
    me. The day after he died. Bob and Jane, the same two friends, who were in the
    room when he died, went to Christopher’s apartment. They told the landlord
    Christopher did not have any relatives. They requested the keys to his
    apartment. The landlord gave them the keys. They went into his apartment, and
    helped themselves to whatever they wanted. I found out days afterward, when I
    called the landlord, who told me what happened. I was devastated, and angry.
    “No relatives”, were they serious? He had a mother, a father, a step mother, a step father and two brothers, who cared about him deeply. He had grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, who cared about him. It was a punch to the gut.
    When confronted, Jane said, “I was going to pack up his stuff and keep it in my garage.” I was furious, “how dare they mess with his
    stuff?” I wasn’t ready to say he was never coming back to his apartment. It had only been two days. Christopher wasn’t even in the ground yet. My husband said it
    best. He said, “Don’t mess with the baby bears stuff unless you want mama bear breathing down your neck.” The worst was yet to come, for his friends said, Christopher told them; I had not been a good mother. “I had not been there to support him except at graduation.” Another friend said, “Christopher had told her he hoped I
    was a better grandmother than I was mother.” “How did they know that was my weak point? How could they have known?” I told no one. It was a secret being a bad mother, I kept it to myself, and cried alone at night about it. Christopher’s “so-called” friend posted a message on my Facebook saying “Don’t think just because you came to his
    graduation that you were a good mother.” This message was left on my Facebook
    page for the whole world to see. I was exposed to be the bad mother, I was.
    A constant struggle from the time Christopher was born was making sure, I was a good mother. One hint, or one word that I was not a good mother would send me into a depression consistently throughout his life. My thoughts would race, my heart would pound, and I was exposed to be the bad mother, I was. After a few days, the loathing of myself would subside. Life interrupted forcing me to go forward. The perceived mistake, which had prompted the depression, would go underground to be relived in those moments of questioning: “Am I a good mother?”
    This fear of not being a good mother came, as most things do, through the interactions with one’s own parents. The relationship between my mother, and I has been rocky for most of my life. She is petite, blonde, and beautiful. I, however, am a carbon copy of my biological father. I have muddy blonde hair, blue eyes, with a stocky build. Not only were we different in appearances; we were different in personalities. Her every day
    interactions with the people around her always had a bite to it. I, on the
    other hand, was well liked, and personable including a strong sense of independence
    with a strong will. Interactions between us were clashes of dominance, which
    continue today. The strong will is both a strength, and a curse for submission
    is not allowed. In any interaction with my mother, submission was imperative
    for survival. My hypercritical mother was the one, who set the standards
    for parenting for everyone else except her. She insisted, she knew what a good
    mother was. “A good mother according to her never made mistakes” The problem being in her eyes, I was a giant, walking, mistake. Growing up, she often stated “Cristi, you have to live with me until you are 21 years. You are too stupid to make your own decisions.” Having Christopher when I was unmarried, and 19 years old
    did nothing to convince her; she was wrong. With the death of my
    son these images, and words came back to haunt me. Immediately, the old
    programming kicks in with the thought “I am a bad mother.” I had left my son in
    Louisiana. He had died alone without me by his side. The guilt kicked in
    convincing me, I was a bad person, a bad mother that is why he died. Every
    mistake I had made in my life came back to haunt me. My mother’s voice echoed through my head. “You are a bad
    mother. I need to take Christopher away
    from you” Always that fear was there, that she would follow through on her
    threats of taking him away. “Was I being punished for this mistake?” Or, maybe it was my biggest mistake of all; which was practicing an alternative religion which did not believe in Jesus Christ. “What was it?” “What made me so different than
    the other mothers who got to see their children grow up, get married, and grow
    old?” “How come me?” It was ever present in my mind, and never
    really left. “What did I do so wrong that I lost a child?” Having been a
    counselor for over 10 years, I saw many mothers, who did not necessarily like
    being a parent. These mothers were more interested in men, drugs, alcohol, or
    work. “How could they get to keep their children, and I could not?” It was a war between you are not being punished for your mistakes and you are being punished for your mistakes. This fear of not being a good mother is a major crisis
    surrounding the loss of a child. It is the fear, and the pain we keep in our
    souls. It is never shown the light, or shared for someone may say “you are a
    bad mother that is why your child died?”In retrospect, when I think about what would have happened if I had been 3,000 miles away from home, and lost my mind, what would have happened?” It scares me to think about it. I would have been wailing on the floor like a crazy banshee in a hospital; or I could have saved him by noticing
    he was not breathing. It is easy to look behind us into the past to do the “would have? Could have? And, should have? I judged myself more harshly than anyone else. But, this is what mothers’ do. We protect our children from the bad. We make them better when they are hurt, sad, or mad. Me as a mother, was supposed to make it better. I was supposed to be there to hold his hand as he died. I wasn’t there, and I failed him. Somehow in my irrational thinking process, I began to make a
    connection between my practices of an alternate religion with being a bad
    mother. The thought process became “I am a bad mother because I helped someone
    in the circle pray.” My friends endured endless questions asking the same
    thing. “Did I cause his death?” Over, and over again, I would ask. Despite the
    answer, I continued to ask. “Did I cause his death?” Alone at 2 or 3 am, this question raced through my mind. The logical mind would try to intervene. This emotion, this
    fear ran so deep; it could not be controlled with logic. This fear made his
    dying within my control. If it was within my control, I could have changed my
    behavior so he wouldn’t die. The unexpectedness, and uncontrollability of death,
    and its effects created havoc on my sense of self, my emotions, and my soul. If
    I could control death, then I could have prevented Christopher from dying.It
    looks like an easy process on paper, it was not. For months, this question was
    never far from my mind. I could be working. It would be a wiggle in the back of
    the brain. It woke me up most nights, and kept me awake for hours. I stopped
    asking others after a while. I finely figured out only I could answer the
    question. “Did I cause Christopher’s death?”The pain is an ache which never went away. It felt the same day or night, no matter what I was doing. Your brain doesn’t work right either when you have so much pain, and emotion inside of you. In order to think, I had to cut through these emotions, and pain to get to a place where thought would happen. Some days I didn’t have the energy to even try.
    My coping skills were overwhelmed when Christopher died. The
    emotional energy needed to cope with the thoughts of being a bad mother, or the
    emotions, and pain of death did not exist. Interestingly, it has been almost
    four years since Christopher died, and the intensity of my feelings are quite
    low compared to before he died. I tended to have powerful emotions that were
    difficult to control for years before Christopher died. Now, I don’t care about
    most things. The reality is I don’t have the emotional energy to care. I am
    completed drained of emotional energy. It does not seem to be coming back. In
    many ways, this is a blessing. Life is easier when the things you care about
    become a precious few. In some ways, it is a curse. There are days when I feel
    dead inside. I keep wondering “How come my give a dam is not working?” “When
    will it be fixed?” My “good mother crisis” has lessened over the years. “Do I still question myself about my parenting skills?” “Yes, I do” “I always will, because Christopher is not here to say, “You were a good mother” What has changed is the loathing, and self-hate, I flogged myself with which has been healed. I don’t have a formula that I can share which will help you heal. What I want to tell you, is you can heal. It takes time. It takes work. It takes believing in yourself. It is not something
    someone else can do for you. I can promise you, the journey will be worth it.

    This is a combination of excerpts from a chapter in a book I am set to publish on July 1, called the Solitary Journey through the loss of a child. It took me 149 pages to answer your 15 minutes practice. There is so much more to grief.

    Reply
    • NerdOfAllTrades

      Wow. This was incredibly emotionally raw. It got to the point, about halfway through, where I started to wince every time I read the words “bad mother.” In most things I read, I’d criticize such a repetition of two phrases (“good mother”/”bad mother”), but it was incredibly effective here, because that’s what grief and guilt do – they drive that same message into your head over and over. It was very moving.
      I would suggest you have someone go through it and proofread it before you publish it. There are a few minor typos (“give a dam” instead of “damn”, “baby bears”-missing an apostrophe, etc.) and I don’t know if it’s an artifact of it being a combination of excerpts, but you may want to improve the paragraphing, for readability’s sake. That stream-of-consciousness, one-thought-running-into-another effect works well here for a monologue on motherhood, but if it’s the same kind of paragraphing over 149 pages, that might get tedious.
      Once again, this was heart-wrenching, and it so powerfully answered the prompt and showed real grief. Thank you for showing us your beating heart (unless that was fiction, in which case, holy crap, that is even more impressive).

      Reply
      • Cristi

        Thanks. I am having a friend edit for me. I started with a professional editor. It changed the story when she did that. I wanted it to be my words. Thanks for the edits. And not fiction that is my heart. There is less emotional content between those paragraphs. I left them out because it did not answer the prompt.

        Reply
        • Hazel Butler

          A professional editor shouldn’t change your words, they should make suggestions for how you might change your words and help you to change them, should you both decide it’s needed. The only words editors should change are ones that are simply incorrect – you’ve used an incorrect version of the same word, or affect instead of effect, inquiry instead enquiry etc. I say this as an editor myself – if the person you were working with was changing your words, they weren’t doing their job correctly. Don’t let it put you off working with someone else in future, you just have to find the right fit for you. Someone specific to your genre who has a track record of editing books you love is always a good start 🙂

          Reply
          • sherpeace

            Good points, Hazel. Also a good editor will do a sample edit so you can decide if they are the right fit.
            I had the opposite problem. I kept asking my editor for suggestions which he refused to do as he said he was not the author and that was not his place! Luckily he did two passes (for the price of one) so I finally accepted that I need to “find the right words” myself.
            That was my biggest fear when looking for an editor: that they would change my words. It’s ironic that I then turned around and was asking for suggestions.
            Sherrie
            Do you know a/b my debut novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador”? A young American woman goes to war-torn El Salvador: http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y

          • Hazel Butler

            I would also recommend a test section being done before you commit to anything for the sake of both author and editor – both need to know they are happy to work with the other and that they are a good fit, and the editor needs to know the MS is something they are comfortable working with and can do a good job on – a good editor will not accept anything that’s outside their remit.
            I’m happy to make suggestions regarding how to reformat a sentence, or restructure something if i’m copy-editing, but I’ll go no further than that. It really depends on what form of editing I’m doing – if I’m doing Line by Line or developmental editing I will make suggestions on word choice if I feel it’s necessary, or if the author asks for help, but under the strict understanding that I’m doing so as an EXAMPLE of what needs to be done in order smooth out that section. The Author should then re-work the section in their own words, bearing in mind what I’ve said. It’s not always easy for two different people to understand an explanation of the weaknesses of a particular aspect of a work without actually demonstrating it.

    • Hazel Butler

      “Your brain doesn’t work right either when you have so much pain, and emotion inside of you.”

      I LOVE this line! It’s so true, and something that people who’ve never been there often don’t quite grasp. I really like the fixation on blame and whether or not it was her fault – that, again, is a thing that often happens. Grief turns to obsession so easily, I’ve often wondered if it’s actually a coping mechanism – by pouring all your energy into wondering if (say) you were a bad mother and it was your fault, you don’t actually have to deal with the greater trauma. You’re too busy worrying over a relatively small concern to actually face the fact you’ve lost a child.

      Really enjoyed this (if enjoyed is the right word), thanks for sharing!

      Reply
      • Cristi

        Thanks Hazel. I am never quite sure if someone will get it. Yes, it is a coping mechanism I believe too.

        Reply
    • Reagan

      It seems that God is trying to break through your doubt, if you will open your heart to him. I really admire that you were able to share this, and even more that you can write a book describing that worst moment in your life. I wish you all the best with your writing!
      “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men”
      -Reagan

      Reply
    • Gary G Little

      Oh my, the what-ifs. I know them very well. My wife decided on a Sunday in 2008, when I was gone to end her life. I have spent the years since playing that what-if, and so many variations of that, game. What if I had not been gone? What if I had gotten her more involved in whatever? What if this, maybe that, but in the end I realized if not then, it would have been another time. In the end I realized I gave her twenty good years that most likely she would not have had. I loved her then, I love her now, and there are still bubbles of grief that inundate me over the loss, but I have moved on.

      Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Cristi, I wasn’t able to read this for a while because of real-life grief. It’s evocative; you’ve tapped into the real regrets and questions we all do in situations like this. Thank you for sharing such a raw and powerful piece!

      Reply
  3. Yitzchak Young

    We were taking an intersection down Route 54 when this truck turned up on our left. The semi-trailer kept swerving closer to use with each turn so I punched the horn and honked the hell out of ’em. Nearly forced us into the barrier. Jimmy was in the passenger. Our aunt Kelly preffered the backseat with charlie. He was swell little pup–was to be a birthday gift for the nephew. But anyway, Jimmy started hollaring:

    “Just slow down and wait for the douche to pass.”

    “No way,” I affirmed, “I’m not letting this guy get ahead just ’cause he wants to. I follow the rules why-why can’t he, huh?”

    “Sis, take a deep breath. We’ll make it to the party on time. Better safe than sorry,”–

    “Sorry my ass! That fucker ain’t getting away with this.”

    I don’t really remember the rest of the argument but Jimmy wouldn’t back down. Aunt Kelly eventually thought to bud in and said something stupid so I told her to, “Shut up! This is my car–my rules. What makes you think you can,”–

    And then Jimmy called me an arragant fuck and that I ought to never talk to aunt Kelly like that, “Because she loves you! Get you’re head out of your ass!”

    I think started to shut them out and just listen to Bastille play, ‘Pompeii,’ on the radio. Jimmy asked me to turn it down, so I turned it up. That might be why I didn’t hear the crash happen up ahead.

    The nurse told me the report a little after I woke up in the hospital. The truck that tried to get ahead of me was blocking the road for some other dumb fuck, so they decided to speed ahead and fly-by a few others. They hit some minivan off course and then the whole highway turned into a wreck. Jimmy was right, that trucker was a duche. ‘Course, his vehical was largest so he was already pretty safe. I kept looking around the room to find Jimmy or Kelly in the bed next to me, but they weren’t, so I called for a nurse to ask where they were. It took a minute or two for her to spout, “They didn’t make it,” becuase before that she kept coming up with some stupid anology or metaphore to say that they were dead and I don’t like stupid sentimental shit like that- I like things real and punishing. I like the rain to hit my face, not blocked by some goddam unbrella and–and . . . and.
    *Sniff
    And now it’s not just my legs and heart that hurts, but my eyes are all red and sore so I can’t see straight. Waiting on my nephew to show up. Every time he sees me he perks up and says, “hey, you pretty thing!” And I smile and hug him tight. I just want to smile, you know?

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Wow, Yitzchak – what a sad piece. Thank you so much for sharing it. This sounds like the jump-off for a bigger story of living with everthing that happened. Wow.

      Reply
  4. Hazel Butler

    A very interesting article, with some excellent advice. I write about death, dying and grief an awful lot, so I thought I’d add my own thoughts on this one – I won’t add a practice as this is going to be too long already (sorry! do skip it if you’re uninterested!).
    Grief is perhaps the most devastating emotion a person can ever feel, yet no two people ever experience it in the same way, even if they’ve lost the same person, and were both there to witness it happen. They saw the same events, smelled the same things, heard the same things, perhaps even touched the same things, but their individual experiences will have been entirely different. Their reactions will be completely different. In my experience a well written scene about grief has little to do with the details of what is happening – the scene itself, the external senses – and everything to do with the internal. The bizarre way the world is suddenly muffled, as if you were in a soundproof room with the door open a crack. You can just about hear that there’s something being said on the other side of that door, but you can’t understand it, and even if you could you wouldn’t care. Your insides seem to have vanished, leaving nothing but a void within you, and its pulling at you and dragging you in. You can’t breathe, you can’t think, you can’t comprehend what is happening because it’s so unfathomable that you could continue to exist in the world when this person you loved is suddenly absent. Perhaps you cry, perhaps you scream, perhaps you grow so angry you kick the crap out of anyone else who happens to be in that soundproof room with you, but you’re not aware you’re doing it. Not really. It’s all happening to someone else, and you’re kind of watching it happen, but your getting sucked into this awful void, and pulled apart from the inside out, so it’s a little difficult to concentrate.
    I’ve known people not react at all for days, weeks, sometimes years, then suddenly they start crying and screaming that such and such is dead. It could have happened a month ago, it could have happened a year ago, it doesn’t matter. Grief has no rules. Your body and mind deal with it in whatever way they can, and if they can’t deal with it, if it’s just too much for them to bear, they block it out until they’re capable of handling it, or until something else happens that pushes you so far it all ends up coming out anyway. That’s the kind of grief that leaves people mad. Maybe not forever, maybe only for a little while, but grief can drive you insane. And there are no rules when it comes to insanity.
    Everyone experiences it in their own way and everyone deals with it in their own way. I’m incredibly sorry to hear of your losses, Ruthanne, but I can very much relate to your need to write through it – although in my case I kept writing because it was the only way to keep myself from going mad. The result of that was my debut novel. It’s perhaps not surprising that the main themes are death, suicide, and grief. That was what I was when I was writing it. It wasn’t what I was feeling, or seeing, or experiencing, it was what I had become, body, heart and soul. I like to think that the only good thing to come out of it is that I at least managed to write a character to whom people can relate, and a character people can understand even if they’ve never actually experienced what she had been through. Her husband had killed himself, she spends the majority of the books suicidal herself due to her grief over his death, and her friends – who were also his friends – are dealing with their own grief at the loss in their own ways.
    Thank you very much for the tips – I am always looking to improve on writing grief credibly.

    Reply
    • Cristi

      Your words are so familiar. Reached in and pulled them out. Let me know about your book. I would like to read. So healing writing the story isn’t !

      Reply
      • Hazel Butler

        Thank you, Cristi. The book is available on Amazon, it’s called Chasing Azrael. I’d post a link, but I’m not sure what the policies are on posting links to our own work. Be sure to let me know when yours is finished too, as I’d love to read the full thing.

        Reply
    • Cathy Ryan

      Well said! What a beautifully honest post. Yes, people do respond to grief in unique ways. My sister and I were both present when our mother passed, yet have dealt with her passing in remarkably different ways. The foundational belief system is challenged especially by death, affirmed for some, found insufficient for some. Writing about grief for a character to experience has given me opportunities to explore different reactions that keep the character’s response true to that character. Your story no doubt expresses the raw emotions of grief for your character and that honesty is what your readers respond to. Congratulations on completing what must have been a difficult work.

      Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Thanks for this, Hazel. I had to cut a lot of it down; there’s so much that the grieving experience which reach outside “normal” everyday life. Everyone’s experience is different, but those things which are part of simple human grief are what make this relatable.

      Reply
  5. Reagan

    This is based on the characters of the novel I’m working on. The backstory is that he’s a doctor, and he lost his sister and both his parents 7 years ago. The girl he’s mad at is a patient at the hospital who is a Christian, and was injured in an accident.

    Jacob placed a death grip on the railing, his palms sweaty. His pounding heart refused to slow its pace, despite his trying to logically calm himself down. How could seven years of struggling have been brought down so easily? He stared down eight stories to the street below, keeping his eyes open as wide as he could to prevent any tears from appearing. He didn’t see the street, though, and he didn’t hear the noise, despite how loud it was in metro Boston. He saw that fateful night, and he heard the phone call.

    How long he had struggled to forget it. How many nights he had sat in his cold, lonely apartment, and how many longs days and hours working at the hospital had it taken to get to this point, only to be brought down in an instant, by that girl. That girl. That pious Alyssa Brenton, who thought the whole world was okay. Who didn’t even have the sense to know when she was beaten. You’d think that girl going through so many problems in her own life wouldn’t be so chipper. He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but that was what got to him the most. There was no way a person could be so happy, not when he hadn’t even smiled since that tragic night. Why should he have to live through this agony, while she went happily through life like nothing had happened

    But things happened. They happened to him. He breathed heavily in and out as the pain started to overtake him, and as he started to fight it. He leaned against the railing, weary. He would give anything to have taken their places. If he had only been there. If he had only told them how much he had loved them. But now, there was nothing. Not even work could distract him from this. There was no point to life, to living another minute. Slowly, he slid his body down the railing and sat against it. If seven years had done nothing to lessen his grief, nothing would. Nothing.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Hi, Reagan! I have to disagree with the idea that you’re not very good at this. 🙂 I found this scene really interesting, and I’m very curious to know more.

      Reply
      • Reagan Colbert

        Thanks! I’m still learning, and ‘show don’t tell’ has always been something I’ve struggled with. This is from my current WIP, a Christian romance novel. He and the girl he’s thinking about (and hating) fall in love. I’m so glad you liked this scene!

        ‘whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men’
        Reagan
        http://www.fiction4hisglory.com

        Reply
  6. PJ Reece

    Whoa! Good one, Ruthanne. I’m saving this over to my special “writers stuff” file. You could make a good short book out of this material. Serendipitously, not 20 minutes ago I posted a piece about sorrow on my blog. But yours is seriously comprehensive. Pardon me while I check out your website.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, PJ! I’m really trying to share the things I’ve learned, and if any of it is helping others, then I call it a success. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Robert Wray

    My Mother Betty was like all others moms but the type of family living through my fathers harsh and abusive ways for all of my child hood , and everything mom took from her Husband was so horrific from the Alcohol and the beatings and the molestation she new dad with her own daughters and nothing she could do , father had gotten away with all of his ruthless ways on her seven children, and mom still stayed with her Husband.

    But through all these years of fear ,I was so scared to even tell the truth or even tell a lie

    so while I was being Molested by 12 Different men till I was old enough to run away from all of the above, I headed to the streets of Toronto Ontario trying to find love of some kind from someone,

    My mind was full of distorted ways I could not even be a normal Teenager like others ,could not Communicate to any normal person , but on the streets everyone understood me just like my Mother, she would always tell me how Special I really was and mom also told me its not how many that Love you Robbie it is who Loves you, I could never Understand this until 55 years Later.

    My mother took ill and I would take the Greyhound every weekend to see my mother at the Hospital and then she was sent home because Cancer set in , My mother suffered for 5 years , but one day I got a call mom is worse , I had no Money at this time so I decide to start walking from London to Brantford Ontario.

    I proceed to walk on the 401 and walked all the way to Brantford and took me 17 hours to get to moms house, when I went in she grab my little face with two hands and tells me Robbie i love you so much , I see in her eyes like never before and she past away soon after , I watched her last breath with my father and that was it,

    I could not even cry but loved her so dearly as we all did, but as I had to go back home I was given bus fare to get the greyhound back home , I sat on the bus and the tears came rolling down all the way to London , and for some reason I found peace I never ever Felt , I just hope you all understand this in some way Thanks

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Wow, Robert. I can’t even begin to understand what this must have been like. Thank you for sharing such a painful, vulnerable piece.

      Reply
  8. R.w. Foster

    This is intriguing, and now bookmarked. My main character, Carter Blake, has one more stage of grief when his beloved is killed: The unleashing of his Super-Powered Evil Side (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SuperpoweredEvilSide). That comes first and is the main driver of the sequel, Rise of the DarkWalker: The Chronicles of Carter Blake, Book II.

    However, once the SPES is conquered, I’m gonna need these tips for the rest of the story. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. kwjordy

    I wanted to try this one again. I got lost in my first attempt and didn’t follow the advice of the blog.

    Now when Ruth walked the beach, the once-soft sand that cushioned her feet and squeezed through her toes felt hard; she could feel each little grain of sand attempt to slice through her skin. The sea’s breezes no longer made her feel refreshed, but punched her in the face and gut. Her once-proud gait was now slumped and slow; Ruth left long, shallow ditches behind her as she dragged along the beach.

    Ruth’s beach walks were getting longer and longer as she tried to force herself to keep moving ahead. But she never got very far. She felt she was searching for something and hoped she might walk out of this nightmare back to the world she once knew when she walked the beach with Chloe. But whenever thoughts of Chloe entered her mind she began walking faster, pushing more and more sand behind. “She’s here,” she thought. “Just a few more steps.” And then would come the inevitable realization that she could never walk backwards, to the past. Then would come the inevitable collapse into the sand, her chest heaving, her wails deep and long.

    She lost it all when she lost Chloe. She was no longer a mother, father, teacher, life-coach, friend. Now she was simply a repository for scattered memories that were too painful to relive for very long.

    On a bright, sunny day, a little boy saw Ruth shuffling along the beach. He approached Ruth.

    “Are you looking for something?”

    Ruth looked at the little boy, his innocence evident in his open, shining smile. She wondered how to make the little boy leave her alone without being mean.

    After a while Ruth answered. “Yes, I’m looking for something.”

    The little boy looked up at Ruth, shielding his freckled face from the sun. “Is it your smile? My Aunt Dot said that when my mommy died, she lost her smile.”

    Ruth looked out to sea, fighting desperately to stifle a scream churning up inside her.

    Finally Ruth looked back to the little boy. “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for…my smile.”

    “I’ll help you look.”

    The little boy took Ruth’s hand.

    Ruth’s throat tightened and she was unable to speak. She didn’t have enough heart remaining to have it ripped open again.

    But the little boy gave a tug on Ruth’s hand, and Ruth began moving forward, putting one foot ahead of the other.

    Reply
    • LilianGardner

      A good story of showing and not telling grief. I felt I was walking along the beach with Ruth.
      The end is perfect, of the little boy offering to help Ruth find her smile and taking her hand to lead her.
      Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
    • Debra johnson

      Okay, now I’m reaching for tissue. So innocent this little boy. Going through my own grief myself this touched me deeply- wise beyond his years this one. Love reading pieces like this.

      Reply
    • Dawn Brockmeier

      I love your use of imagery, great showing, not telling! Great story!

      Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Wow, what a powerful scene! This really moved me. Thank you for sharing it!

      Reply
  10. LilianGardner

    Dear Ruthanne, this is a fabulous post. I ‘ll bookmark it right away to read over and over of the ways of ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ about grief.
    I’m writing a true story of a couple who immigrated to America. Your article comes in handy to help me ‘show’ the grief they encountered.
    Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • sherpeace

      Yes, the grieving of leaving everything behind. That has to be huge. Then to come to a country where people often don’t even know their neighbors? Whew, wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Though, of course, it happens all the time.
      Sherrie
      Do you know a/b my debut novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador”? A young American woman goes to war-torn El Salvador: http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y

      Reply
      • LilianGardner

        Thanks for your comment, Sherpeace.
        I’m looking up your novel as soon as I post this.
        If a person is forced to immigrate, he/she will not integrate fully.
        If a person chooses to immigrate, I think they will eventually fit into the new country and enjoy it.

        Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, Lilian! That sounds like a really solid use of this. Wow – to have left everything behind, even one’s native tongue… wow. That’s a lot of grief.

      Reply
  11. sherpeace

    I re-posted this on A Page A Day https://www.facebook.com/pages/A-Page-A-Day-Lets-all-write-just-one-page-a-day/103970129720405?fref=ts
    I can’t imagine what you went through but I do know that losing my mother-in-law, then my mother made my novel much richer. Since my protagonist was encountering death at ever turn, the deaths in the novel were better understood and felt by the protagonist.
    Sherrie
    Do you know a/b my debut novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador”? A young American woman goes to war-torn El Salvador: http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Wow, I didn’t know about your novel! Thank you for sharing it, Sherrie. I don’t think anyone can understand grief until they’ve been there, but eventually, everyone DOES get to that place. It means this is important to write about. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  12. Aala Elsadig

    It’s actually quite intressting how you mentioned the forgetting the person point. In the story I’m planning, a character actually went through that. I was somehow worried it didn’t sound realistic or anything, but thanks!

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      You’re welcome, Aala!

      Reply
  13. Forth'Wyn

    I myself have experienced grief a few times with my dad and more recently my grandad – I suppose that’s one of the main reasons why my character has a minor storyline that revolves around her parents and the “replacement dad” she had as a teenager. But the grief that she has to go through in the main story is over a man that she was going to marry. I tried writing what it would be like for her, but I just don’t think I’m ready to go there, yet :/

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      I hear you, Forth’Wyn. Take your time. The story takes shape at the pace it needs to.

      Reply
  14. kim

    My father was from the first world war he was a gunner there was a self
    portrait of him a painted photograph that was sitting on the mantle piece
    I was cherished where I was seated there was always a reminder of him I missed the fact that
    there wasnt any attachment any more like sending me to school no more talks or any
    love .
    I had hunger pains in my gut and thirsted of the horrors he must have gone through
    when he was at war it made me sick to the stomach of how the man would have
    felt I wished that I could have said more when he was alive
    the guilt I felt at this moment time ticked on and on 15 years had passed
    since he died it was another hour that passed as I was getting tired for a afternoon nap
    I lay rested and realised that there was nobody to put me in bed

    Reply
    • Cathy Ryan

      I especially like the very physical responses to grief. “…hunger pains in my gut…” The last line is especially poignant.

      Reply
    • ruthannereid

      That’s powerful, Kim. Thank you for sharing such brutal and powerful thoughts.

      Reply
  15. Cathy Ryan

    Great article! I especially love the questions. They really help me identify the core issue for several characters in my works in progress.
    This particular practice is a early teen boy protag who has lost, not a person, but his way of life.

    This place stinks. The cows stink. The chickens stink. The pigs stink. I am not one of the farm kids. I did not grow up on a farm. Never touched a cow. Never drove a tractor. Just because I’m here now, that doesn’t change anything. It’s temporary. Soon as Grandpa is better, we’ll go home.
    There’s no place to even walk to around here. No basketball court, no theater,
    no arcade games, no stores, no friends. There’s nothing but pasture fields surrounded
    by trees and narrow roads that lead to more farms, and snotty, stinking cows
    behind every fence. Even the school is dumb.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      I’m so glad to hear that, Cathy!
      I can feel this kikd’s frustration. What a rough spot for your protagonist to be in!

      Reply
  16. marilyn mccormick

    Within 6 months time my brother’s wife died (on my anniversary) then my job was lost due to a merger, then my oldest son died in a fall at my home, and on the same day as my son’s death, another brother’s wife died. Although I didn’t write about my grief, I read countless other books about other peoples losses. As I digested the words about their great grief; their pain reflected my own pain. As their sorrow flowed across the page, I joined my hands and heart to them. Yes, we cried together. My tears wet the pages with such a deep ache for them and for myself. I was truly grateful for authors who shared their pain, which helped me to feel, cry and slowly come out of the darkness and into the light.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Oh, Marilyn; my heart aches for you. I can’t agree enough on the power of *grieving together* with others through their own written story. I hope someday you can write about your experiences, helping others to weep, too.

      Reply
  17. Salwa Ib

    Did I never know pain before this moment?

    Nothing can compare the hole that is within my chest right now. Not after everything that vile monster tried to do to me, the years of humiliation, fear and disgust. Not even after Marco and I discovered the truth behind my actual birth. Not even after I realized how much years I’ve lost, the pain I endured all to please the ego and pockets of a man who thought it was his god-given right to toy with my life.

    Agony doesn’t drown you. It burns the internal core of who you are. It leaves nothing but ashes, not even broken pieces to help you piece something of yourself together. I didn’t lie there quietly as he died. I clutched his hand and begged to whoever, whatever I could ask. Doctors and nurses left the room, unable to watch the scene unfolding before them.

    For the first time in my life I truly prayed to whatever higher being there was, because at this point I was so desperate. I prayed to whatever, bargaining my soul. I was ready to give up anything, my limbs, my eyes, my hearing, my own life just to give Marco another chance. From begging to bargaining, to complete threats I literally swore to myself that when I met God I’d punch him was because of the lie God told us he was, that he was so ‘almighty’ but at this moment when I can promise you, he could hear me right now and chose to do nothing.

    What was worse was the silence that greeted me. The inevitable knowledge that you are going to be separated from someone you loved. That no amount of praying, begging or bargaining was going to keep them from leaving you. I wonder if this was what it felt like to have your soul ripped out while you were still alive. Physical pain cannot compare to emotional pain because at least you can see the wounds, assess and take painkillers, escape to some sort of high. But emotional pain is when you are killing yourself, and is inescapable.

    Because agony doesn’t make you just cry. It makes you scream, and I swear the screams left me sounded so terrible that it seemed unreal. It wasn’t a small, feminine scream or moan. It was the animalistic, gut-wrenching roar that left my throat. The scream that you make when you feel as though you lost everything. That was what it felt like. A long, antagonized, never ending scream of grief that no words could ever describe.

    My only light was extinguished from the world.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Oh, Salwa! This is written so well. I find myself weeping along with it; the desperation and pain are shown exceedingly well, and I find it impossible not to relate and empathize. Thank you for sharing this.

      Reply
      • Salwa Ib

        Thanks for the comment Ruthanne. Looking back at this after two months I do feel a bit mortified, it seemed a bit melodramatic, no?

        Reply
  18. Darlene Pawlik

    Thank you for this blog and for the opportunity to learn and share.

    Reply
  19. Alicia

    Thank you for writing such an inspiring article, both from a writer’s point of view and person!

    Reply
  20. Savanah | Off-Color Literature

    This is SO helpful! Thank you so much.

    Reply

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